by Liuan Chen Huska
When I started having chronic pain in my early twenties, I couldn’t imagine how I could be “well” again if the pain continued. When physical healing didn’t come, I wondered – how can I be whole when I’m always in pain? Do I just ignore my pain? I brought this desperate question to church, to my friends, to the books I read. One of the answers I kept hearing: “What matters is that your spiritually well. Your body might be hurting, but your soul can be well.”
This answer bothered me. It still does. It assumes a divide between body and spirit. As if our bodies didn’t matter to our spiritual health.
“In this life we do not have the option for ad extra vocation, the living out of God’s calling beyond the body,” writes theologian Joyce Mercer. “Christians have not always been comfortable with the idea that God’s call for us to receive others in relationship takes place in and through our bodies. Bodies matter in God’s call and in our responses,” she continues. If Mercer is right, and God’s call to us takes place in and through our bodies, not outside of our bodies, how can we be present in our suffering bodies? How can we receive God’s call here in these bodies that no longer perform as they used to, that often fail and betray us? How can we come home to our bodies, so we can know God, even here?
- Remember your body’s purpose
Our bodies, says psychologist Elizabeth Lewis Hall, are made for relationship. Social scientific research and theology converge to affirm our purpose. Neuroscience shows that motor circuits in our brains are activated when we see others’ facial expressions and actions, via “mirror neurons.” This system “helps us understand the emotions and sensations of others,” Hall writes. From the Bible, we see that our bodies are part of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12), underscoring that what we do in our own bodies affects others in Christ’s body, and Christ himself. These are two of many examples Hall uses to show that “our bodies are created by God to function in facilitating relationship, for the ultimate goal of showing God to others.”
When we remember that the bottom line, the highest good, is relationship, we can release our death-grip on that elusive goal of good health and instead appreciate how our bodies do indeed facilitate connections with people and creation. Even in the worst of my pain, it was still in my body that I received hugs from friends, inhaled the familiar scent of my husband, and stepped on crunchy fall leaves. My body still served its ultimate purpose – to join me to God and his world.
- Say thank you to your body
My chronic ankle pain prevents me twirling double pirouettes – something the dancer in me loves to do. I won’t be training for any marathons, because I know my joints just can’t take that kind of beating. Yet, I have moved slowly from a posture of dissatisfaction toward my body to gratitude, because my body is still amazing, despite what it can no longer do. These days, I thank my body for having nursed three babies, for enduring strings of sleep-deprived nights and still functioning, and even for allowing me to look at this screen and type. My body has done so much and continues to do so. For that, I give thanks.
- Enjoy simple physical pleasures
A couple years into having chronic pain, I took a bath. I don’t usually take baths, but I felt compelled, this time, to do something good for my body. I made myself a sugar and oatmeal body scrub and drew the water. I slipped into the warmth slowly, exhaling as my skin submerged inch by inch. This bath was a turning point for me in my journey with chronic pain, because I realized, then, that even though my body is often a source of pain and confusion, it is also still a source of pleasure, even joy. My body is still good.
- Accept limits
We live in a culture of limit denial. We are constantly pressured to produce more, work harder, and push our bodies past what is humanly possible. When our bodies suffer, we feel our limits acutely, and may feel less worthy and weak for not being able to do what others can. But limits are part of being human. When we acknowledge what we cannot do, we create the space for others in our community to step in and be the body of Christ to us.
Our limits may seem to distance us from others – my pain may prevent me from going to church one Sunday, for instance. But paradoxically, our limits can also connect us. When I say, “I can’t do the laundry today. Can you come help?” to a friend, I peel back my illusion of self-reliance and allow someone else into that vulnerable interior space where I am just a human being that needs other human beings to survive and thrive. There are certainly times to push the limits. But we also need to learn to accept limits, because that is the only way to be truly human, truly whole.
Many religious traditions use to power of breath to bring us out of the constantly-running tape reels of our minds and down into a deeper, fuller reality, down to the core of our being. In the Jesus Prayer, for example, you breathe in saying, “Lord Jesus,” and breathe out “have mercy on me.” Over and over and over.
Take a moment to stop whatever you are doing and just breathe. Breathing is the most basic act of being alive. With this next breath, be aware that your very existence, your very breath, is sustained by your Creator. “In him we live in move and have our being” (Acts 17:8). If any part of your body is uncomfortable or in pain, breathe in specifically to that area. Don’t try to push away the pain, but just be present in it. Keep breathing.
- Welcome God’s presence in your body
When Jesus became a human being, he took on all the bloody, messy, painful aspects of having a body. The Gospel of Jesus doesn’t ask us to escape our bodies to know God, but to know God here in our bodies. Know this: God is with you – in your tired beyond tired bones, in your jackhammer headache, in your joints that just won’t move this morning. God sees all of it. God loves all of it. God blesses all of it. God is here.
Liuan Huska is a freelance writer. Her book Hurting Yet Whole: Reconciling Body and Spirit in Chronic Pain and Illness, releases in November with InterVarsity Press. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband and three little boys.
If you live in the Chicago area, Liuan will be speaking at Wheaton College on February 19th. Her talk is entitled “What is healing when you don’t get better?”. Click here for a link to a flyer about the event.
Note from PerGen editor Michelle Van Loon: I had an opportunity to read an advanced copy of Liuan’s book, and I commend it to you. It is a thoughtful, honest, and theologically-solid discussion about this subject. If you or someone you know deals with chronic illness, this belongs on your reading list. Watch for more about this book later this year!